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Federal COVID Aid a Flash Point as Tensions Escalate Over School Mask Policies

By Evie Blad — August 23, 2021 6 min read
Students are reminded to wear a mask amidst other chalk drawings on the sidewalk as they arrive for the first day of school at Union High School in Tulsa, Okla., Monday, Aug. 24, 2020.
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Tensions over whether schools can require universal mask-wearing have heightened to a new point as local, state, and federal officials spar over how to operate schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Federal relief funds have played a key role in that debate, and that’s gotten the attention of the ranking member of the House Education Committee.

“Are states required, as a condition of state receipt of [American Rescue Plan COVID-19 relief funds], to allow school districts to mandate the use of masks?,” Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., wrote to U.S. Education Secretary Miguel Cardona last week.

Her letter came after Cardona wrote a series of letters to leaders of the eight states that ban mask mandates, alerting them that that schools can use American Rescue Plan relief aid to make up for any financial penalties they face for defying state leaders. That assertion may be put to the test in Florida this week as two districts, in Broward and Alachua counties, face the prospect of the first state consequences over the issue.

Cardona’s letters “implied” that the Education Department would “impose new requirements” for federal aid “that could interfere in state governance of their education systems,” Foxx wrote.

In his response to Foxx Friday, Cardona stressed the Biden administration’s previous statements on the issue. Federal regulations for the relief aid issued in April require school districts to make plans for how they will reopen schools and how they will address recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, including a call for the universal wearing of masks, he wrote.

That does not mean that requiring masks is a prerequisite for ARP funding, an Education Department spokesperson said in response to questions from Education Week. But Cardona stressed in his letters that states that tie districts’ hands on the issue may be standing in the way of creating their aid plans.

“Our priority must be to help ensure that every student can safely return to school in person, which necessitates protecting the health and safety of school communities and families,” Cardona wrote.

He also highlighted an Aug. 18 memo from President Joe Biden that directed the Education Department to use “all available tools” to ensure that “Governors and other officials are taking all appropriate steps to prepare for a safe return to school for our Nation’s children, including not standing in the way of local leaders making such preparations.”

In response to that memo, Cardona said the agency’s office for civil rights may investigate complaints that a lack of universal masking has created an unsafe environment for some students, violating their rights under federal law. In some states with bans on mask mandates, such as Texas, students with disabilities have sued using similar arguments.

“Part of the Department’s mission in the context of the pandemic is to support all students in equal access to safe schools and meaningful opportunities for in-person learning,” the agency spokesperson told Education Week. “Withholding or denying access to those resources is a barrier to achieving that mission and is a path the Department does not want to take.”

States defend bans on school mask mandates

Cardona’s assertions aren’t the only way that federal relief funds have gotten caught up in the mask debate.

Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey announced Aug. 17 a new $163 million grant program using a state-controlled portion of the ARP aid. The program would provide up to $1,800 in additional per-pupil funding to recipient schools, but those that require mask mandates or return to remote learning wouldn’t qualify, he said.

“Safety recommendations are welcomed and encouraged—mandates that place more stress on students and families aren’t,” Ducey said when he announced the program. “These grants acknowledge efforts by schools and educators that are following state laws and keeping their classroom doors open for Arizona’s students.”

No state “should use federal funds to prevent or discourage schools from using evidence-based approaches to stop the spread of COVID-19,” the U.S. Treasury Department said in response to Ducey.

Cardona and Biden have called defiant superintendents in Arizona and Florida, urging them to stand their ground and keep their local mask rules in place. They stressed that federal funding could help backfill for any state penalties.

Tension over the issue has been most prominent in Florida, where state officials have threatened to withhold funding equivalent to school board members’ pay to punish two districts that have set requirements in violation of an executive order by Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican. Six districts there have adopted universal mask requirements that don’t allow families to easily opt out.

The state’s board of education gave the Broward and Alachua county districts 48 hours Friday to undo their mask rules or it would withhold state funds equivalent to the salaries of their school board members.

“We cannot have government officials pick and choose what laws they want to follow,” said Commissioner of Education Richard Corcoran in a statement to the Associated Press. Both districts held firm in their plans over the weekend.

Corcoran and DeSantis have said they believe that parents should decide whether or not their children wear masks to school. They’ve questioned research on the effectiveness of face coverings and prioritized individual rights in their decisions.

The CDC has repeatedly stressed that schools should open for in-person learning this year, but officials have called for “layered mitigation” strategies, including masks and proper ventilation, to help reduce risk. As the more-contagious Delta variant spread rapidly in July, the agency revised its recommendations to call for universal mask-wearing in schools, even among those who are vaccinated.

Masks help prevent the wearer from contracting the virus and, worn universally, slow spread among populations, case studies have found.

Legal action over bans on school mask requirements

Many of the states that have banned local mask requirements have low vaccination rates and high rates of infection and hospitalization attributed to the Delta variant.

Leaders in those states have faced overlapping legal challenges over the issue.

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, a Democrat, rescinded his statewide school mask mandate Monday after the state’s supreme court made a ruling over the weekend supporting limits on his emergency powers. A separate mask requirement for public K-12 schools set by the state’s board of education remained in effect.

In Florida, a judge started a three-day hearing Monday to consider a lawsuit brought by parents who argue that DeSantis has kept the state from providing “safe and secure public schools” by enforcing his order.

Meanwhile, defiant districts there stood by their decisions over the weekend.

In a letter to DeSantis, Alachua County Superintendent Carlee Simon said Sunday that the 30,000-student school system had 273 student COVID-19 cases and 63 cases among adults, News 6 reported.

“Like you, we are obligated to provide a safe and secure education to all students,” the letter said. “Universally masking is the most effective strategy we have, besides vaccination, to meet this obligation.”

Separately, the Texas Education Agency said Thursday it would not enforce a state ban as several courts consider the issue. The same day, the state’s supreme court refused to void a preliminary lower court order that allows local leaders to impose mask requirements. Dozens of Texas districts will now require masks.

And after Arkansas lawmakers earlier this month failed to reverse a ban on mask mandates in a special legislative session, a judge there temporarily paused enforcement of the law while he considers a lawsuit by parents who want universal masking in public schools.

A version of this article appeared in the September 01, 2021 edition of Education Week as Federal COVID Aid a Flash Point as Tensions Escalate Over School Mask Policies

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